Attorney General Merrick Garland attends a briefing at the Justice Department Building on Nov. 18, 2022, in Washington, DC.

Attorney General Merrick Garland attends a briefing at the Justice Department Building on Nov. 18, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — Former President Donald Trump went on the attack when Jack Smith was named the latest special counsel to investigate the former president, calling him a "fully weaponized monster" whose Obama-era ties made him a "political hit man."

Yet one of Trump's own lawyers shares those same ties.

For five years, James Trusty and Smith served together as senior Justice Department officials. Smith tackled public corruption. Trusty went after gangs and organized crime.

Now they're potential adversaries in what could be the nation's most politically incendiary federal case. Smith is poised to recommend to Attorney General Merrick Garland whether to indict the former president for mishandling classified documents or in connection with efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Trusty is part of Trump's legal brain trust.

During their time at Justice, though, the two section chiefs were close and supportive, known to joke around at meetings, former colleagues say. They won major cases and also weathered setbacks and controversies.

Smith and Trusty bring to their current roles firsthand insight into how the other manages complex investigations and high-pressure situations. Former colleagues likely would use some of the same words to describe them, said Jason Weinstein, a former high-level Criminal Division official — "measured, responsible, ethical, good lawyers."

"It was clear to me there was a great deal of respect in both directions," said Weinstein, who remained friends with them.

This kind of shared history can matter – to a degree – if Smith, 53, and Trusty, 58, find themselves sitting across the negotiating table, said Lanny Breuer, who led the Criminal Division during their time as section chiefs.

"There's a level of trust," Breuer said. "It's not going to change, substantively, things, but when you know each other and respect each other, it makes even the most stressful situations a little bit more navigable."

Lawyers in this type of situation wouldn't be expected to do any favors, but if one asks for a meeting they might get a more friendly reception and open mind, according to a person familiar with the investigations who requested anonymity to discuss it.

Smith and Trusty declined interview requests.

Their evolution from colleagues to combatants is striking given the notoriety of the Trump probes, but not totally surprising. Former Justice insiders are often sought for politically sensitive cases. Trusty is also friends with Robert Hur, the special counsel investigating classified materials found at President Joe Biden's home and office; they were federal prosecutors together in Maryland.

Trusty is a registered Republican, but his friend and former Maryland colleague Rod Rosenstein, Trump's former deputy attorney general, said he didn't think Trusty agreed to represent Trump for "ideological reasons."

"I think he views President Trump as just another client who is deserving of the best legal defense," Rosenstein said.

Lawyers who know Smith — a political independent, according to a senior Justice Department official — say Trump's bias claim is baseless. Weinstein called it "laughable," and added that although he hadn't discussed it with Trusty, he suspected "no one would feel it's more laughable than Jim."

Their connection dates back more than a dozen years. Smith and Trusty were each tapped to help the Justice Department recover from the botched prosecution of the late U.S. Senator Ted Stevens.

Trusty had just been hired as a gang unit deputy when the Stevens case fell apart in early 2009. But given his trial experience, he was sent to Alaska to work on other cases in the wider corruption probe. By the end of 2010, Trusty was the right fit to lead the merged gang and organized crime section, Breuer said.

Smith was hired that year to take over the Public Integrity Section in a post-Stevens reboot. He'd been overseas working for the International Criminal Court following a successful run as a federal prosecutor in New York. Breuer said he was looking for someone "bold and courageous," but not a "cowboy."

"Jack fit the bill," he said.

Smith and Trusty's cases rarely overlapped, but they met regularly along with other senior officials in the division. Breuer recalls they would "rib each other" during meetings and "were two of the more affable, slightly bigger personalities."

Smith's tenure saw convictions of lawmakers, law enforcement officers and government contractors. He ran "a real tight ship," said Brian Kidd, a former public integrity attorney. "He was good at pushing cases that seemed worthy to pursue."

The work coming out of Trusty's unit included a slew of cases against the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas prisons and MS-13 gang.

"I put a lot of stock in someone like Jim," said Cody Skipper, a former attorney in the section. "He has a better gauge than most people, because he's seen a lot more."

There were also challenges. Smith faced criticism for dropping older investigations. A campaign finance case against former U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards ended with a hung jury and partial acquittal.

Trusty's name surfaced in what became known as the "Fast and Furious" scandal. Emails between Weinstein and Trusty featured in efforts by congressional Republicans to hold then-Attorney General Eric Holder responsible for a mismanaged gun-tracing operation, though officials said the messages were wrongly interpreted.

Weinstein declined to discuss those events, but said Smith and Trusty "were personally supportive of each other in good and bad times."

They'd cut similar paths to the Justice Department, prosecuting violent crime at the state level before moving to US attorney offices in 1999 — Smith in Brooklyn and Trusty in southern Maryland — and eventually holding leadership posts. Trusty's courtroom successes included a murder conviction in the widely-covered case of a missing 6-year-old. He was involved in early efforts to deploy the federal racketeering statute against MS-13. Rosenstein described him as an "accomplished trial lawyer."

Smith was involved in a number of high-profile cases, including the brutal sexual assault by police of Abner Louima and the murder of two undercover detectives. He was "appropriately aggressive" and "creative," said Todd Harrison, a friend and former colleague.

Now back in the spotlight, they've knowingly taken jobs with professional risks. Some of Trump's past relationships with his lawyers have been fraught. The first Trump-focused special counsel, former FBI director Robert Mueller, faced intense scrutiny and personal attacks.

After leaving the department in 2015, Smith moved away from the US political arena. For the past four years he's been leading a war crimes investigation involving Kosovo in The Hague. He hasn't made a public appearance since becoming special counsel in November.

Trusty leaned into the public eye after he went into private practice in 2017, providing legal commentary on Fox News about the Russia probe, among other topics. Jeff Ifrah, the founder of Trusty's law firm, said reports that Trump saw Trusty's TV hits are true, but not the whole story — several people in Trump's orbit recommended hiring Trusty based on his background.

Ifrah said he wasn't worried about the firm having Trump as a client. "You're either committed to representing individuals and trying to keep the government honest or you're not," he said.

Fellow Trump attorney Evan Corcoran, himself a former federal prosecutor, had praise for his colleague: "If I had to describe Jim Trusty in only three words, they would be — integrity, integrity, and integrity."

Trump has name-dropped Obama officials that Smith — but also Trusty — served with as evidence that Smith is a "Radical Left Prosecutor."

Former colleagues say Smith is apolitical and has years of experience rebuffing the kind of attacks coming from Trump.

"What Jack is driven by," said Kidd, Smith's former co-worker. "is public service."

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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